From the director of Robocop and Showgirls!
Fear not, gentle cinema goers! Paul Verhoeven has returned to Holland, and this is his first Dutch film since 1983. While almost all European international releases deal with the past, can one really blame the continent for having such a rich and terrible history? I’m not convinced that I’d seen a Dutch film before this one, and I’ve certainly never examined this part of Euro history: Holland’s occupation by Germany.
Black Book not only realises an infrequently examined aspect of European history, it does so in a distinctly unsanitary fashion. It feels like several movies all at once, but this makes it more real; in Black Book, one can see many things that they are unlikely ever to see elsewhere.
Opening a movie after its main events are over, with its main character gazing out to sea and reminiscing, is a dangerous tactic; the audience is guaranteed that the protagonist survives the body of drama. Fortunately, Black Book is a film so immersive that there is no comfort to be had on any front. The survival of the heroine is the one guarantee offered by Verhoeven. The rest of the movie is uncharted and untelegraphed.
Rachel (Carice van Houten) is a Jewish girl in Nazi occupied Holland. Her efforts eventually lead to joining the Resistance and infiltrating the highest Nazi offices in the land, where she embarks on an ambiguous affair with Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch).
An advantage to a story that has a course outlined by history is being constantly subjected to unpredictability; the spectre of history is a canvas, but the characters have free reign within. Verhoeven, whom I never would have picked as a man familiar with subtlety, has not written these characters in moral black and white; ambiguity is a form not highly valued in filmic narrative now, but World War II is certainly an appropriate home for it. Altruism is remarkably low among the Resistance, a group largely informed by self-interest. As in the Nazi party, there is an amazing difference between collective ambition and selfish pursuits.
Next to the stellar van Houten, Sebastian Koch brings an excellence to his performance comparable to the joy and sorrow that he brought to the superlative The Lives of Others. The film gives credence to the idea that there were Nazis who weren’t terribly interested in the party line; of course, it would be hard to create a sympathetic Nazi otherwise. In the context of a story, one is presented with the macrocosm of the world and the microcosm of the characters who inhabit the narrative. It is not so abhorrent to imagine Müntze as a character deserving of respect and affection, particularly when compared to his more ruthless and genocidal Nazi comrades, but this is an issue that will perhaps grind with many of the film’s viewers. Koch is believable as Müntze and certainly there is an internal struggle in the viewer to reconcile his Nazism with his humanity, but caricatures do not a movie make.
At two hours and forty five minutes, Black Book is long, but only seems that way simply because it does not end at the point that one might reasonably expect from a war movie: that is, the end of the war. This film offers the aftermath of war: the main streets, bedecked as they are in victory, and the side streets, with their parades of shame and human degradation. This is the ugly side of success, and something that those who have not been through war may find hard to understand; certainly, this segment of the movie is more sickening than anything that happens in the parts where the country is legitimately at war. War and peace both have rules: if victory turns the rules on their ear, what is the point of having them? A miniature anarchy is cause for major concern, and national victory should never be confused with personal victory.
Many bad things happen in Black Book, but the movie doesn’t feel bleak for all of that. One could be wracked by survivor’s guilt, but one can feel that, having survived all this, Rachel deserves to live guilt free. It’s to Verhoeven’s credit that, after such a harrowing movie replete with violence, twists and betrayal stacked upon betrayal, that the audience members don’t feel like survivors; rather, I felt like I had borne witness to something fleeting, rare, terrible and beautiful. That is what the cinematic experience is supposed to be.